Was James an Unbeliever Before the Resurrection?

Traditionally James is thought to have been an “unbeliever” before the resurrection. Like Paul, he encountered Jesus after the resurrection and “converted” to Christianity. This description is troublesome for several reasons. First, the unbelief of James concerned his understanding of who Jesus was during his ministry. He was an “unbeliever,” but the disciples were not clear on who Jesus was nor did they fully understand his messianic mission. They too left Jesus in the end, betraying him in the Garden.

Jesus and his brother JamesSecond, James seems to have had a traditional Jewish worldview and theology. He does not suddenly become a Jewish thinker after his encounter with the risen Jesus. Like Paul, James would have understood his brother’s activity through the lens of Second Temple Judaism and like the Pharisees questioned some of Jesus’ activities and teachings.

However, it is possible to read the data in the gospels differently and argue that James was in fact a follower of Jesus prior to the resurrection. There are only a few texts which refer to the family of Jesus in the Gospels. In Mark 3:21 indicates that the family thought Jesus was “out of his mind,” but 3:31-35 says that they came “seeking him,” presumably to take him home.

In John 7:1-5, however, there is a clear statement that his brothers did not believe in him. But when one looks at this text, it is in the context of Jesus’ signs. The brothers are urging him to do his publicly rather than in secret. They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.

Perhaps a way to get at this problem is to as if Mary was an “unbeliever.” To my knowledge no one would suggest that Mary “did not believe in Jesus,” yet in Mark 3:31-35 Mary is also seeking Jesus. In John 2, Mary seems interested in Jesus doing a miracle in a more public way. There are no scholars who would argue that Mary was a non-believer in Jesus, even though the evidence is the same as that of James. No one would think of Mary having a “conversion experience” after the resurrection. She was in the upper room after the ascension, waiting with the disciples and the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1:14). In general, one could describe Mary and James similarly prior to the resurrection.

James, like Paul, had a traditional Jewish worldview prior to the resurrection. How far did James move away from Judaism when he encountered Jesus?  What evidence is there in the letter of James to support any changes within Second Temple Judaism?

27 thoughts on “Was James an Unbeliever Before the Resurrection?

  1. Mary stored all these things in her heart:) “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14…she knew:)

    • Thanks Denise…I agree “she knew,” but I have always wondered if she fully understood the meaning of Immanuel until after the resurrection. And yes I know this is a similar question to that song “Mary Did You Know?”

      I suppose the point here is not so much doubting Mary’s faith, but to parallel her experience with James since both witnessed the miracles of Jesus and came to similar conclusions at one point when they came to see him in Mark 3. Maybe Mary is more special to most people so no one would doubt her pre-Easter faith, but James may be more similar than we are willing to accept.

  2. Frist I would like to hit on this,”They do not deny that he is a miracle worker, but they complain about the way in which Jesus is doing those miracles. This may hint at a belief that Jesus was a special teacher, man of God, or miracle worker, but not a full understanding of Jesus as the messiah.” P. Long
    In the past everyone in the old testament that came to save the people were up front about who they were and what they were doing. The Israelites and Jews were a people of signs, they always looked for signs because that is how God spoke to them, through prophets and signs. But Jesus being different was there to save people not destroy people.
    In the past as well like in Judges over and over God saves his people and then they fall away, and then they come back, and get saved again. And it was with an army and with great violence generally but Jesus came to save the people, all the people not just his people. So to do that you can’t go around killing all the unbelievers right. So he came to save in the way of being the truth and the light to people.
    Which the Jewish people could not understand because he has never done that before. I have herd it said insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. So as such God is not insane and changed things. It is just hard for them to understand that is all. Plus to an insider, going outside the norm may seem insane, but they have it backwards is all.
    So when Jesus was preforming miracles in secret or doing and saying things people thought was too crazy he was actually just doing what they needed. Now, if I was his family I would probably go to get Jesus so I could see what he was doing for myself, also I would want him to do it again for me personally just to know for sure he was doing these things. So that’s my take on why they went to go get him, they were curious I mean wouldn’t you be?
    In the book of James it talks about the law in the spiritual aspect and so I don’t believe James moved away from the traditions of Judaism, but rather incorporated Jesus’s teachings into them. Throughout James it speaks more in the tune of tuning yourself inwardly with the law in stead of outwardly. The law was to help Jews know when they did something wrong, the only reasons they study the law was to get around or away with something, in a way avoid the law. But James speaks of up holding the laws and even more so take them to an inner place within yourself to know the law truthfully.

  3. James remains pretty Jewish, it not like he switched from Jew to Christian, he is just now a believer that the Messiah came and was his brother. His focus went from waiting for the messiah to how do we live knowing that he came and is going to return. It also makes sense that he might not have been a believer before the resurrection on two fronts. The first is the idea that people were waiting for their own presuppositions of what the Messiah was supposed to be like and do. Jesus didn’t really do much of that when he came. The second front is the fact that Jesus was his brother. As you mention in the blog his family even thought he was crazy. I can’t imagine what I would think if my brother said he was the son of God and was going to rise from the dead.

  4. I think that the distinction should be made about knowing and believing. James knew that Jesus was special, James knew that Jesus was a man of God, possibly a prophet to lead the people to redemption and away from the path of destruction. However, I would have to argue that James did not actually believe that Jesus was the Messiah, and even if he did believe that he was the Messiah he would be expecting completely different actions and end result. Jesus even says in Luke 4:24 “Truly I tell you, (…) no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” The family relations would also come into play here, for James would probably trust that Jesus knew what he was doing and that he was divinely inspired and gifted in a way not seen in four hundred years, but to actually believe that your older brother is in fact fully God in the flesh would probably be much too far fetched to believe before the resurrection. A prophet may be believable, but anything beyond that would be beyond the scope of imagination much less belief. In light of this, I would have to argue that James knew Jesus to be special but probably did not believe in him as the Messiah who would save Israel.

  5. I believe that Mary knew and understood that Jesus was the Son of God but whether or not she understood what Jesus would do or become is more questionable. She obviously knew that Jesus was divine because she knew that He did not come into being by natural ways but “pondering them in her heart” suggests she did not fully understand the outcome. Perhaps the “misunderstanding” James had came from Joseph. If James was the child of Joseph with Mary, making him younger than Jesus, there is the possibility that doubt was brought into his mind through Joseph. Think about the faith it would require for Joseph to trust that Jesus came from God, especially since this would be the first and only ocurance where this has happened. If I was Joseph there would at least be a little doubt in my mind. In fact, anyone who knew the truth that Jesus had the claim of not being conceived of natural causes would naturally wonder whether that was true. I think there would be an underlying doubt to Joseph, and that it probably would have come to the rest of his brothers as well. It would be that story that seems so crazy so how could they accept it 100%. In fact, the only thing that would make them fully believe would be his Resurrection. Multiple prophets had worked miracles through God but the resurrection of Jesus would be the thing that finally make them believe. I don’t think James, and His brothers necessarily doubted, but there may have been the question, “how do we 100% accept this as truth?” That question wouldn’t be answered until the resurrection. We have the privilege of knowing the full story, James didn’t have that and so maybe he wasn’t an “unbeliever” but there were probably questions in his mind.

  6. Both The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel According to the Hebrews make James a follower of his brother prior to the resurrection. While both may be of dubious historical value, they do constitute evidence of early Christian traditions concerning James.

    Eusebius says that James was appointed bishop of Jerusalem at the same time that Matthias was chosen to replace Judas as the twelfth apostle. That seems more consistent with James being an established member of the community rather than a recent convert. There is also the report in Acts that Jesus’ mother and brothers were with the apostles in the upper room.

    As far as I know, there are no early traditions portraying the appearance to James as triggering his conversion. What there is seems to point to him being a follower of his brother prior to the crucifixion.

  7. It is evident in the Book of James that the author had had significant changes take place once he realized that his brother was in fact the Messiah that his Jewish faith eluded to in books such as Isaiah and Micah. In his book, James mentions the law. However, he does not specifically mention the Law of Moses. (Jobes, Pg. 174) He instead mentions “the royal law” which is to love one another. His emphasis upon not showing favoritism and caring for the impoverished speaks to his zeal as a Jew to uphold the greatest and next to greatest commandments: loving God and loving others. He understands that everyone regardless of social standing has an equal share in Christ. (Pg. 169) By using the concept of law, he draws from his Jewish roots to convey the importance of the new commandment Jesus gave humans which was to love one another. (John 13:34) Even though Jesus is barely referred to in the letter, James’ teaching agrees and compliments those of brothers very well. We see this by James stating that faith without works is dead. The royal law which Christians are to live by is love. Thus these two realizations correspond very well with Jesus’ teaching that reveals that sheep are those who care for the least of these. In addition to the law, James also incorporates literature styling very reminiscent of Jewish wisdom literature such as Proverbs. One can see this in his description of the tongue and the pros and cons that can come from it. (James 3) Jobes mentions that James the Just seems to know the non-canonical book Sirach, as his writings example a similar style. (Pg. 167) James used what he was familiar with in order to connect with an audience he related with. He may have done this in order that the Jews who read his epistle could understand the truth about Jesus in a way that related to their faith in Judaism.

  8. I would like to think that James knew his brother was different while they grew up together. However, I also believe that Jame’s stubbornness and maybe even envy clouded his view of who his brother really was. I can picture Mary telling James about her meeting with the angel and James thinking, “I know Jesus is your favorite, you don’t have to make up stories about why though..”. I chuckle every time. As I read the passage in Jobes about the Christology of James, she made an interesting point. In the early first lines of this book, James is stating full submission and servant hood to Jesus, same as God. Jobes states, “This is especially remarkable, humanly speaking,.. given the psychological dynamics between siblings” (185). I cannot let my brother even have the bigger slice of pizza, I cannot imagine what James was doing. From the very first words of his letter in James 1:1 he has given all of who he is to Jesus, who was his earthy brother. However, deep in James’ heart he had to know that Jesus was not simply his brother. James was witness to Jesus’ sinless life style after all. I feel that even if James did not know Jesus was the messiah in the front of his brain, in the back of his head he always knew Jesus was greater and special. After Jesus appeared again it all clicked.

  9. Personally, I feel it would be very hard to be Jesus’s brother and somehow not understand that, at the very least, something was different. According to Jobes, Jesus is a very important figure and he has a proper understand of Jesus’s position as at the right hand of God; and yet he does not talk that heavily about him. If James had been converted later, similar to Paul, one would assume a good amount of his writings would likely focus a lot on Jesus and the importance of salvation. However, not only is his work presented in a way that is often seen as contrasting Paul’s, but it is a lot more focused on wisdom and how to be a mature Christian. He also speaks very knowingly and puts a lot of importance on what Jesus said while he was alive, which would be strange if he wasn’t paying that much attention or agreeing with Jesus during said time. However, there is not a whole lot of evidence in favor of him being a Christian regardless, so there is certainly room for debate.

  10. Thinking of the character and timeline James makes my faith a little more real and appropriate because if the brother of Jesus still held a little doubt and was reserved in his understanding of what was happening, then my sometimes shallow faith can be sufficient. As pointed out by Long (2018) in the original post, James had a Jewish worldview and saw Jesus’ actions through that lens, which made him concerned about what he was witnessing because it seemed to through some of his cultural teachings and understandings for a loop.
    One key difference that would have impacted James’ understanding of the gospel and Jesus’ actions during the Second Temple Period was the people’s relationship to the Torah. James 2 talks about the law through the eyes of both Judaism and Christianity. Verses 10 and 11 reflect on the Old Covenant relationship of the law, whereas verse 12 talks specifically about the law that brings freedom as being built on mercy and judgement. Jobes infers that divine judgement is based on an individual’s relationship with the Torah, as seen in the Old Covenant, but with Christ it gives freedom, there is involvement from both sides of the cross (2011). I would think that because James grew up in a predominant Jewish home and had a firm foundation for his faith in Judaism, that upon recognizing the reality of the gospel he still identified culturally as Jewish but slowly began to understand and implement what it meant to live under the New Covenant.

  11. As we read and study Jesus’s ministry, we sometimes forget or overlook what Jesus’s family was doing/thinking during this time. Wouldn’t be just crazy if your brother was the actual messiah? Throughout Jesus’s ministry James (the half-brother of Jesus), didn’t respect or believe in his brother. In fact, James and his family believed Jesus to be “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21). The doubt and nonbelief his family had clearly, in Mark 6:4, saddens Jesus. James and his brothers did not believe in Jesus (John 7:5). They encouraged him to the festival of Tabernacles not in support of Jesus but ridiculing Jesus. “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do” (John 7:3). The siblings of Jesus are asking Jesus to leave, they want him to do his miracle works to “his disciples”. This tells us that they do not believe or follow Jesus. They want Jesus to get caught in Judea for doing his miracles publicly. “Jesus was not refusing to go to the festival but refusing to go in the way his brothers suggested, as a pilgrim. When he went it would be to deliver a prophetic message from God, for which he awaited the right time” (Barker, 2011). Jesus’s family could not accept the idea that he was the Messiah. It wasn’t until after Jesus resurrection did James start believing and become an important leader in the church.

    Barker, Kenneth, study note on John 7:8 in NIV Study Bible, Zondervan 2011.

  12. This is very interesting because I have never thought about this. I always assumed that Jesus’s family knew. Now for a minute here lets say you are James and Jesus is your brother. You can tell your brother is different, but also your parents raised you in the jewish culture. Jesus is telling you that he will change all of this. if I am James I am probably saying how? Maybe poking fun at him because I grew up with him. the Bible does not say he did any miracles growing up so, the only thing is he did not sin which would be different. when Jesus starts on his ministry his family is probably thinking he is crazy. Mark 3:21 says Jesus’s family thought he was crazy and tried to get him. This is the beginning of his ministry so his family is probably having a hard time letting him go on his own. also in the moment I probably would not understand what Jesus was doing if he was my brother. I would have thought he would go crazy. but after he died or maybe towards the end I would look back and realize that he is the messiah. I think placing ourselves in that situation helps us better understand why Jesus’s family would think he is crazy and would go and get him.

  13. Like Professor Long points out, James has traditionally been considered an unbeliever before the resurrection of Jesus. In the book of James, it is clear that James has a background of Jewish tradition, theology, and worldview. From this viewpoint, James would have understood what Jesus was doing through this knowledge. It is clear that James did not support Jesus right away. In Mark 3, Jesus’ family came to Jesus to take Him home because they thought Jesus was “out of his mind.” As Professor Long points out, Jesus’ brothers seem to believe that Jesus was a miracle worker and wished that He did His works publicly and not in secret. However, nowhere in Scripture is it clear when James became an unbeliever. It is clear after Jesus’ resurrection that James was a follower of Jesus. This is evidenced when Paul went to see James after his conversion and then at the Jerusalem conference.

  14. I think I have always just assumed that Jesus’ disciples and family were as much “believers” in him as they could have been. I don’t think anyone would say that any of the disciples believed in Jesus like we do while they were following him during his ministry. There was still so much to come from Jesus that would change everything about understanding him. I am not sure if this is theologically sound, but I like to imagine the brother of the Lord simply rolling with the punches. He obviously knows his brother is not just the perfect oldest child. But to what extent was James aware of the person of Christ? The progression of Jame’s faith in Jesus was likely progressive, similar to how our faith matures as our understanding of Jesus deepens. But for James and the disciples, that kind of knowledge came literally from Jesus revealing himself to them as time went on. At what point does a stack of brick become a wall? The intent is always for the wall to be complete, but it takes a while. James’ traditional Jewish worldview makes up the foundation of his “wall” or faith, and Christ is the fulfillment of that faith. The very interesting thing about considering the faith of those who walked with Christ is that they must have had an unfolding, maturing faith! And there is much for us to learn from that as we take our own steps into knowing Christ.

  15. I believe there is a distinction in the word believer that needs to be taken into consideration. No one could really technically believe in Jesus as we know do before the resurrection, because by definition he hadn’t died and been raised from the dead yet. So in this way, no James wasn’t a believer beforehand. In the more practical sense of believing, the disciples saw Jesus’ works firsthand and yet they were confused about his identity and what he truly meant and even denied him once he was arrested. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that they gained confidence in Jesus being the Jewish Messiah and then they placed their faith in him. Similarly I don’t believe that James would have fully grasped who Jesus was and why he was doing what he was doing until after the resurrection. James recognized his brother could do miracles and had power but he wouldn’t have believed he was the Jewish Messiah and God himself.

    On an interesting side note, I also believe that Mary would have had a deep understanding of who Jesus was, but still may not have realized the depth of what he was doing and who he was until after the resurrection. Not that she didn’t believe in him or his miracles, but she didn’t really know who he was. Just like Phil Long says in the Class notes on page 72 “The unbelief of James concerned his understanding of who Jesus was during his ministry,” not whether or not he believed in his power or his miracles.

  16. I assumed that the family of Jesus believed more in him than anyone else on the planet. Due to his mother encouraging him to make a miracle at the wedding they were attending (John 2). I believe that they had an understanding of who he was and just did not realize how true or how much authority Jesus had. That after the resurrection they fully comprehended that he was the True Messiah that came to save them and the rest of the world. I do think that because we know and have the full story of Jesus we can comprehend and know the authority that Jesus has. We can read, imagine and even have movies of all the bible stories. Granted they had Jesus with them, we have only what we can read. In a sense, they had it “easier” to believe in Christ, but they didn’t until he came back from death. I think we all have or go through doubts with believing in Christ, and I think that can affect the way we read James. I also think that after the resurrection, James’ beliefs came to be quite similar to Jesus. That he wanted people to see and understand how much a relationship with Christ can change your life.

  17. People have thought of James to be an unbeliever before the resurrection. He is seen to have been like Paul, who had a major life changing experience with Jesus and than converted to being a follower of Christ after the resurrection. This theory is built on how James did not quite understand fully who Jesus was and what His ministry involved. However, the twelve disciples did not understand that concept all the way either and there is not questions on if they were true followers of Christ. Another aspect of how this theory can be contradicted is that James’ worldview had already consisted of a Jewish worldview and theology. This was of thinking is something that was not just suddenly changed but rather it was something that he grew up having.
    Taking into consideration the Gospel books, it can lead us to believe that James was a follower and believer before the resurrection. In John 7:1-5 it gives us the idea that James did not believe in the signs that Jesus had done. However, the argument of this is seen to be in the context that Jesus’ brother wanted Him to perform these in public rather than in private. There is no denial of believing Jesus is a miracle worker, but rather it is a confusion and disagreement of how Jesus does his miracles. In my opinion this is a natural thing for siblings to disagree on what the other sibling is doing. The Bible often used terms such as “seeking Jesus” rather than believing in Him when referring to Jesus’ family members. The complication with Jesus’ family is that they were family to Jesus, meaning they grew up with Him and experienced life with Him in many similar ways that each of us have with our families.

  18. The family of Jesus was not the only group to doubt his messianic nature despite believing him to be some kind of prophet or teacher. We see similar reactions throughout Jesus’s life: in his being driven from Galilee, the disciples initial debate regarding his Godhood, the crowd at the cross comparing him to Elijah, etc. In some of these cases, as is true of the crowd that witnessed the crucifixion, those doubting Jesus do not have a “conversion moment”. In other cases, most apparent in the disciples, those who doubted would eventually become Jesus’s closets followers and friends.

  19. Like the twelve disciples, James seems to have low Christology prior to his meeting with his resurrected half-brother. James also does not seem to be a participant of Jesus’ earthly ministry prior to his crucifixion, as Jobes mentions that he does not cite Jesus’ public ministry, but is probably working from the Q-document (and, naturally, information gleaned from Jesus followers that he personally spoke with) (159).

    Mark 3:21 and John 7:5 also show that Jesus’ family (likely including James) did not believe in his Messianic nature, as noted in the blog post.

    Another possible reason to believe that James was not on board with his brother’s teachings comes from Jesus’ instructions to John on the cross. Dr. Gary Habermas has noted that Jesus giving care of his mother to John rather than James – his own brother and his mother’s son – or any of his other brothers could be because James was not on board with Jesus’ movement, and it may have caused too much tension between the two, especially if he considered her a heretic for claiming another Lord besides Yhwh.

    However, his writings show a remarkably high Christology despite the fact that this Christology would have gone against his traditional Jewish training in a short amount of time. James’ transition from traditional Jew to Christian (with a high Christology) must have – just like with Paul – taken a significant event to convince them. Of course, seeing Jesus resurrected certainly would have done the trick.

  20. When reading James, it certainly does not seem as if it is written by an unbeliever. James starts his letter by saying he is “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” which is a very intriguing statement given that James may have been his half-brother. Knowing that siblings often compete makes this all the more evidence that James recognized Jesus was the Son of God if the author was in fact Jesus’ half-brother (Jobes, 2011). James also refers to Jesus and God as one by stating that they have the same power in law, giving and judgment, refers to Jesus’ teachings and advocates for his readers to undertake life under the New Covenant, and depicts Jesus’ glory. There is also evidence that James believed in the word he uses for Christ “christos” which means messiah in Hebrew (Jobes, 2011). This shows that James is placing Jesus as the long-awaited messiah. All of this can be understood from the two times that Jesus mentions Jesus specifically. While James’ background is not necessarily clear as far as when he began to believe in Jesus as Lord his encouragement to the reader, his confidence, and forwardness in his message show his own belief and his willingness to help guide others who do believe. Since his readers are “believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ” James that they should live accordingly. It is not clear when James believed, but once he did believe he became a powerful advocate for Jewish Christians learning life under the New Covenant.

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